An overwhelming majority of bishops in the United States have voted to move forward with drafting a document on Communion, in spite of the Vatican’s concerns about politicising the Eucharist.
Even if it does not mention any names, it is expected to implicitly reprimand Catholic politicians, such as President Joe Biden, who support abortion rights.
Among senior officials in the Holy See, there is no support for those who want to deny Biden Communion. Even the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – scarcely a hotbed of theological liberalism – warned the US bishops that any move down this road could “become a source of discord rather than unity.”
It’s at times like these that the gulf between Rome and parts of the US Church feels wider than the Atlantic Ocean.
On the one hand, we have the vision of Pope Francis, who says the Eucharist is “not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners”. He wants the Church to pitch its tent among the messy realities of the world, and to build the Kingdom of God in the imperfect here and now, rather than to seek out islands of doctrinal purity.
He points out in Amoris Laetitia that when it comes to who can receive Communion the Church is “called to form consciences not to replace them”. This was the message echoed by the papal envoy to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, when he addressed the US bishops at their online meeting last week: “We are not a Church of the perfect but a pilgrim church in need of the mercy offered generously by Christ.”
On the other hand, we have the belief that clear teaching guides who can and cannot receive Communion. The rules are black and white. If that makes it impossible for a politician to be a practising Catholic and to support abortion rights for women, then so be it. The Church is a “perfect society”, set apart from the prevailing culture, which has abandoned traditional Christian teaching on marriage, sexuality and gender.
Although the Church must be wary of offering “cheap grace” (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it) and suggest forgiveness is possible without repentance, the danger is a drift into a sectarian way of thinking. A Church of the “pure” runs counter to the definition of Catholicism as all-embracing and universal, and that faith is a journey where the starting point is not perfection.
Not every US bishop in favour of a statement on Communion is on a collision course with Rome.
Following the interventions from the Vatican, the document will now focus on a broader theology of the Eucharist, rather than simply on Communion and erring politicians. This may have convinced some bishops to vote for the proposal. The US Bishops’ Conference has issued a question-and-answer explainer emphasising the forthcoming document is aimed at responding to the “declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among Catholic faithful”.
Furthermore, the decision on whether Biden should be barred from Communion rests ultimately with this local bishop and pastor, and there is no sign they are in favour of such a move.
Perhaps the most instructive vote during the recent bishops meeting, however, came when Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago suggested that Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia be referenced in a forthcoming family life document.
This chapter is contentious, as it includes the Pope’s opening to divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in some circumstances and some of the bishops were opposed to referencing it. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, leader of the US bishops’ committee on laity, marriage, family life and youth, was among them. He is a leading advocate for refusing Communion to politicians who support abortion legislation.
In the end, 52 per cent voted in favour of Cupich’s amendment while 42 per cent opposed and 6 per cent abstained. This vote, which was effectively a referendum on a key teaching document from Francis, illustrates the sharp divisions within the US hierarchy. It is also extraordinary that there is such disagreement among bishops over referencing a major teaching document on the family from the Pope.
Much of the recent discussion about threats to Catholic unity have been centred on Germany and its synodal pathway. Some voices in the US and Rome claim that the Germans are in danger of “schism” as they debate women’s ordination, sexuality and how power is exercised in the Church.
It’s worth recalling, as Christopher White of the National Catholic Reporter has pointed out, that the bishops pushing to exclude certain Catholic politicians from Communion, are also those who gave their backing to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò when he released his 2018 dossier calling on the Pope to resign.
At the time, Archbishop Cordileone wrote a letter to his flock that at least some of what Viganò was saying was true. But even though the Holy See published an exhaustive report which pointed out the inaccuracies and falsehoods in Viganò’s 2018 accusations, the bishops who supported him have not corrected the record.
Offering support to a retired papal diplomat calling on the Bishop of Rome to resign is a bold move. We read in the catechism that the Pope is “the visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and that the “college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head”.
Rather than Germany, isn’t the real threat to church unity coming from the Communion-denying bishops in the United States?